Textile History

Knitting Machinations : episode 3

Miserable machinations

Last time, we learned how Lee’s knitting machine spread to France – amongst not a little scandal and trouble. The idea outlived the man, and production on knitting machines improved and grew quickly through the 1600s and into the mid-1700s. By 1750, much of this production was done in the home, with the whole family involved. It was, by all accounts, a bleak and thankless career, with most families barely scraping by. After the frame rental, materials, spinning, seaming, candles, machine oil, etc etc profits were meagre. One knitter wrote to a newspaper in 1837 explaining that his outgoing expenses came to one pound two shillings and eightpence, but he only earned 15 shillings. In the mid-1800s, if a knitter worked 12 hours a day, they would be left with about 5 shillings for a week’s work. Children were employed in tasks like seaming – an eight year old girl could optimistically make about 4 shillings a week working from seven in the morning to ten or eleven at night.

To put this in context, at the time a pint of beer cost about three pence (thruppence), and there were 12 pence in a shilling. So frameworkers were making enough for about four or five pints a week, which had to cover all their expenses for their families.

To add insult to literal injury, most of these workers were practically indentured to suppliers – instead of receiving a cash wage, they had to obtain their food and goods from the hosier who bought their product. This was called trucking, and often meant the frameworker had to pay inflated prices.

A doctor in Nottingham – where framework knitting, mostly in the home, was particularly important and widespread – noted in 1833 that these framework knitters were in terrible health. Pale, malnourished, thin, dyspeptic (a delightfully visceral Victorian word for irritable and depressed). They lived in poverty in sparsely-furnished homes, and their conditions were considered worse than other textile-industry workers who left their homes to work in factories.

Most other textile industries had transitioned from domestic to factory-based production during the Industrial Revolution, but framework knitting resisted this in a really interesting way. Since the knitting machines could be accommodated in the home from the early days of the machine’s invention, by the time the industrial revolution came around many families had already invested in the equipment and wanted to make use of that investment by continuing to work at home. Given this existing industry, why would factory owners bother trying to compete – the equipment was expensive, and they likely wouldn’t find skilled workers to hire anyway because they’d all be doing it at home already.

Into the modern day

Despite all this, machine knitting thrived over the next few centuries, and industrial knitting became a backbone of the UK economy. Of course, it did end up in factories eventually, as we know. A livery company – the particular moniker for London’s trade associations and guilds – grew up around it: the Worshipful Company of Framework Knitters still exists. Their centre is in Lutterworth, in England, and their motto is “speed, strength, and truth united”. In recognition of his invention, and his refusal to let it die, William Lee is featured in their coat of arms – although the company wasn’t incorporated until 1657, after Lee’s death, and was granted livery status in 1713.

If anyone is further interested in these worshipful companies, known as livery companies, there’s an article about them on Wikipedia. You might be surprised at the industries they cover. For example, the Worshipful Company of Hackney Carriage Drivers encompasses modern licensed taxi drivers. A few new ones have been created over the years, like the Worshipful Company of Information Technologists. They generally have mottos – my favourite is that of the Worshipful Company of Woolmen, whose motto is “lana spes nostra”, or “wool is our hope”.

I’m interested in these, and you should be too, not for their rather charming olde-worlde names but for their mere existence as support bodies for crafts and skills. To varying extents they provide services such as mentorship, scholarships, networking opportunities, events, archives. The Worshipful Company of Framework Knitters even has what it still calls an almshouse: a name that conjures up Dickensian images of workhouses and well-intentioned but poorly-executed Victorian philanthropy. But today, this almshouse provides fully modernized living community to people of limited means who have retired from jobs in the knitting industry or allied trades. I just find that absolutely amazing. This centuries-old union, born of the guild system in basically feudal Britain, now provides homes and events and community, so people in need of it can live independently with dignity, and socialize and basically hang out with other retired knitters.

But what does this mean today?

As more and more people of my generation enter craft and trades professions, we read so much about the dangers of this type of work. Not the dangers of past centuries: cotton lung, mangled limbs, malnutrition, coal dust. But new dangers: as many workers in such professions are self-employed, we have no union or health insurance or paid sick days or holidays, no pension plan. We have to fight for every contract, against clients who are constantly trying to lowball us. We have to overwork ourselves in underpaid part-time jobs to make ends meet. We have to excel in every sector – production, social media, shipping, accounting – because there’s no one else to do it for us. We hold ourselves to incredibly exacting standards, always in comparison with those who seem to be doing it better than us, who seem to have it all figured out. We may not be fighting upper class factory bosses but we’re our own worst critics. And some of the old dangers still linger: underpaid work, lack of awareness of the value of manual labour, overwork, long hours, no days off, and dyspepsia.

So I think we should learn from these centuries-old institutions, that may no longer form as central a part of daily life for workers as they used to in the 1500s, but which still provide essential services and support. We’ve come a long way from Queen Elizabeth banning William Lee’s knitting machine. We’ve come a long way from huddling by candlelight over needles finer than a toothpick, knitting silk stockings for pennies. I don’t know necessarily where I’m going with this, but maybe… worshipful company of listeners, why don’t we unionize?

Much of the research surrounding William Lee and the early knitting industry comes from various internet sources, but specifically the very interesting book Knitting Technology: a comprehensive handbook and practical guide, written in 1981 by David J Spencer, and an article I found online by Denise Amos through the Nottinghamshire Heritage Gateway.

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